Researching College Majors

Some students know what they want to study in college. They may use this as a guide for determining which schools to apply to. This may lead them to missing good fit colleges, because their search is too narrow. They also need to consider the actual requirements of a major to see if the focus at a particular college fits their interests.

Colleges are independent institutions that develop majors over the course of decades (or longer). Which majors a college has and how they are organized will differ as a result of departmental history, funding initiatives, and student or faculty interests. Similar majors might have very different names or be found in different departments or colleges at a university. On the other hand, colleges with similarly titled majors can have very different graduation requirements.

Use College Navigator to Find Colleges that Offer Specific Majors

As an example, let’s consider a student who has been taking Asian history and Chinese language classes in high school. She wants to study more about the region and continue to study Chinese. She likes literature, but is really interested in history, politics, and economics. Other criteria in her college search include wanting a school that isn’t too big or too small. She wants to graduate in four years and is concerned about college debt.

She goes to College Navigator and uses the Browse for Programs search function to search for Chinese related majors. She finds over 100 colleges that offer a bachelor’s degree in Chinese Language and Literature major and 23 with a Chinese Studies major. She isn’t sure that she wants to commit to majoring in a foreign language, so she decides to go with the colleges that offer a Chinese Studies major. There are good schools on the list, but many she expected to see didn’t show up. What happened?

Basically, her search was too specific. She thought she was doing well to consider both Chinese Language and Chinese Studies, but she missed a lot of quality programs that have different labels. Let’s go back to College Navigator and try some more search terms in the Browse for Programs.

Using the keyword Asia within the Browse for Programs tool and some creative brainstorming, I found several more programs to investigate.

Asian History
Asian Studies/Civilization
Chinese Studies
East Asian Studies
Pacific Area/Pacific Rim Studies
Russian, Central European, East European and Eurasian Studies

This produced a much longer list of 226 colleges with a bachelor’s degree in one of the above programs. This is ten times the number of colleges that had just Chinese Studies programs.

How to Narrow a Big College List

At the top of the College Navigator search results is a link to “Export Results.” Clicking on this gives an option to save in Excel or as a CSV file. Choosing Excel creates a spreadsheet file with all of the basic info about each college in the search results. All of the colleges can be viewed in one long list. Now we can apply some of the student’s other college fit criteria.

We can sort the list by graduation rate and delete colleges with graduation rates lower than 60%. This is a little arbitrary, but the national average graduation rate is around 60%. This brings the list down to 185 colleges.

At this point she can start to narrow the list using other criteria. Maybe she looks at the public colleges in her state, where she would be eligible for in-state tuition. Perhaps she sorts out the private colleges and then compares average net price.* Alternately, she could go back to College Navigator and click on “More Search Options” to use other filters like test scores or percent of students admitted. At the top of the search results is another link to save search results.

How to Decide if a Major Is Right for You

Eventually, our student will want to dig into individual college websites. It is a good practice to go to the departmental pages and look for descriptions of the major and graduation requirements. Most will have some form of “sample course plan” or “course of study” or “major checklist.” This type of document will help clarify what courses are required to complete the major.

This level of investigation is the best way to differentiate between a major that focuses on language, literature, and art (ex. Tufts University Chinese Major) vs a program that offers more history, politics, and economics (ex. American University Asian Studies Major). Some programs use an interdisciplinary approach by utilizing related courses from other departments (ex. Johns Hopkins University East Asian Studies Major).  

Our student could also use this style of in-depth research to determine if a major with a more general label like International Relations would support the type of work she is interested in. Coupling a more general major with a couple minors creates significant opportunities for customizing an educational experience (Ex. Ursinus College would allow our student to major in International Relations and minor in East Asian Studies and/or Chinese. These minors might also be paired with majors such as Economics, Anthropology, Business, or Environmental Studies.)

This practice of intentionally widening the search focus, then filtering for other aspects of fit is one I frequently recommend to clients. It’s crucial with academic plans that don’t have an agreed upon label. For example, a college film program might include majors such as Film Studies; Film Production; Film Science; Cinematography; Cinema Studies; Digital Media; or even Radio, Television and Digital Communications. It will be less useful for majors that are found on most campuses, like English or Computer Science.

Note: How Much Does a College Cost?

*Comparing average net price using this data is really only effective for private colleges or public colleges where the student would be eligible for in-state tuition rates. Public colleges report the net costs for in-state students, which means the average costs found on college search engins are usually lower than what out of state or non-resident students will be expected to pay. The best estimates on college costs will come from using the Net Price Calculator available on individual college websites.

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